The incredibly shrinking politics of sport

Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis


TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

NOTHING and no-one got past Bruce Fordyce as he powered his slight frame through the field from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in 1981 to claim the first of his nine Comrades Marathon victories. Nothing, that is, except a few vrot tomatoes.

They were thrown at him by a fellow competitor enraged by the black armband Fordyce wore as a protest.

Contrast that with what happened at the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town last month, when runners were warned against taking up an appeal from social organisations including Save SA, Sonke Gender Justice and the Treatment Action Campaign to wear black armbands to “say no to poor leadership in our country” during the race.

Organisers took a dim view, which they spelt out in an official release: “As a sporting event we celebrate inclusivity and diversity, and strive to unite, not divide.

“We remain neutral, apolitical and impartial as an event, and are not associated nor condone any political activities at our events.

“We therefore respectfully request that runners and supporters do not use this event as the platform for political activities.”

That would be a violation of the race rules, which read: “Under no circumstances will any slogans, chants, banners, placards or such-like of a political, religious or offensive nature be tolerated.”

But Fordyce said the comparison was not perfect.

“There’s a subtle difference between the armband I and other runners wore in 1981 and what happened at Two Oceans,” Fordyce said.

“President Zuma and his cronies are not the fault of Two Oceans, whereas the Comrades Marathon Association decided to associate itself with the apartheid government in 1981 by accepting R5000 to be part of the Republic Day celebrations. A lot of black runners pulled out of the race because of that.

“An equivalent today might be a decision to call it the Donald Trump Superbowl; Americans would protest.

“It’s not Two Oceans’ fault that we have a Guptastate – it’s whether the issues affect that sport directly.”

Fordyce, who commentated on this year’s Two Oceans on television, said he saw runners wearing black armbands “and they were not disqualified”.

That said, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the sting of politics has been drawn from the vast blimp of affluence sport has become.

Which could explain why we do not hear South Africa’s current sporting luminaries use words like “cronies” and “Guptastate” in talking about the country’s state of affairs even as their compatriots put their lives on the line in service delivery protests. That’s if we hear sportsmen and women talk about anything besides their exploits in the arena or some peripherally connected fluff.

Instead, footballers are fined for lifting their jerseys to display messages, and even banned for complaining about racist crowds – the fate of Sulley Muntari, a Ghanian stalwart of three World Cups who was abused while playing in a Serie A match at Cagliari.

And to think the same game was once graced by Socrates, who captained the Corinthians team that defied a military junta by demanding democratic elections in Brazil in 1981.

In 2008 Luke Watson spoke of the “burden” of wearing the racially tarnished Springbok jersey and said he had to “keep myself from vomiting on it”.

These days rugby players puke only when they’re pissed, while just about the only non-rugby thoughts heard from them concern their addiction to religion.

Current cricketers suffer from a similar affliction, but even though Henry Olonga is among the God-botherers he joined Andy Flower in a black-armband protest against “the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe” at a 2003 World Cup match in Harare.

Can we blame professionalism for the cognitive dissonance those who run modern sport seem to encourage among the playing elite, or does the happy truth that evils like apartheid are no longer with us mean that sport has ceased to be an appropriate vehicle for the real world of political protest?

“It’s a two-way street in that the politics of those who play sport is being drummed out and the politics of those with power is being brought in,” University of Johannesburg sociologist Ashwin Desai said.

“Those who play sport have been silent. That’s a real danger – that sportspersons can’t express themselves in any way.”

That, Desai suggested, could put sport’s authorities at odds with wider society.

“In a time when people feel cut off from party politics and institutional politics, you can see them taking action in other ways.”

San Francisco 49rs quarterback Colin Kaepernick started doing just that last year, when he kneeled or sat rather than stood during the playing of the national anthem before games to highlight the epidemic of police brutality shown towards blacks in the US.

But telling the world what you really think while millions are tuned in to watch you hit, bowl, throw or kick a ball or run a race can exact a high price.

This year Kaepernick is struggling to secure a place in any of the NFL’s 32 teams, while neither Olonga nor Flower played for Zimbabwe after the 2003 World Cup.

The furore over Watson’s vomit comment stunted his career, which was never fully cleansed of the seeming stain that he was the son of Cheeky Watson – who had shunned white rugby to play on the non-racial side of the apartheid divide in the 1970s.

Muntari’s ban has been overturned, but only after howls of objection to it from around the world by fellow footballers and followers who have long bemoaned the sport’s ongoing – and too often tolerated – problems with racism.

But if we’re going to point fingers at the way sport has dumbed itself down then we have to ask what the protests of the past achieved.

The international boycott against South Africa’s teams in the 1970s is often held up as an important chink in apartheid’s armour, and it was indeed instrumental in bringing home to whites just how opposed much of the rest of the world was to the policies of the government they kept electing.

That, however, didn’t mean that the present had turned out like those who fought the good fight had hoped.

“There wouldn’t have been a debate about quotas (in South African sport) if more development and transformation had taken place in the 1990s,” John Minto, a major figure in the protests that swept New Zealand during the 1981 Springbok tour, said.

“But the ANC set out to destroy the non-racial organisations like SACOS (the South African Council on Sport) and they didn’t set up any structures in their place. It’s an embarrassment.

“Then, when there’s a public debate about quotas and transformation, the ANC blames whites. It’s obscene.”

For Minto, sport is a symptom of  a disease that has dashed hopes for a properly functioning democracy at the southern tip of Africa.

“The ANC have sold out the majority of people in South Africa,” Minto said. “They’ve taken up almost every offer that was going. In the end the corporations have got their way.

“Democracy in South Africa and a lot of other countries is five minutes in the ballot box and that’s it. There’s no question of a participatory democracy.”

Perhaps times really have changed. Can it be a coincidence that Fordyce and his armband, Socrates’ Corinthians and the mayhem to which Minto was central were part of the history of the same year?

Fordyce was an archeologist with a special interest in ancient rock art who at Wits University became close to Bruce Webster, the anthropologist who was assassinated in 1989 for his anti-apartheid activities.

Socrates was a medical doctor who listed Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and John Lennon among his heroes.

Minto, a high school physics teacher and lifelong activist for progressive causes who was nicknamed “the screaming skull” by a detractor, ran – and lost – for mayor of Christchurch last year.

Difficult, isn’t it, to imagine many of South Africa’s modern footballing, cricketing or rugby-playing finest immersing themselves in the wider world quite so selflessly, former test cricketer Mark Boucher and his passion for rhino conservation excepted. Almost all of the others will be remembered as nothing more than footballers, cricketers and rugby players.

Maybe that’s because the revolution will not be televised. Which means those who mount it will not be sponsored by big companies.

Pass the vrot tomatoes.

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